June 30, 2015

"are you feeling settled yet?"

A friend who is preparing for a big move called me "brave" for making my last big transition, to marriage and to Europe. To be honest, her upcoming move is probably much more drastic than mine, not in number of kilometres, but because in her mid-twenties, she is leaving the only place she has ever lived, and leaving friends she has had since elementary school. This transition really will be a big one for her, but as you probably know, I have gone through a lot more transitions in my life than she has, and moving to Europe didn't feel particularly courageousit was just what needed to happen, if I wanted to get married. (And I did want to get married!)

I realized after this last transition, though, that I am learning about big life changes and how to handle them in a healthy way. I'm finding some common threads in my various stories of adaptation to a new place or situation. Writing back to my friend, I told her two things that I've learned about transition, and I thought I'd share them here, too. I speak mostly of changes in location, but I'm sure some of these thoughts could be helpful in other transitions, like changes in job, stage of life, or relationship.

The first thing I've learned about adjusting after transition is to expect it to take a while. Even if the first days or weeks seem exciting and you feel up for anything, you can expect that the transition will hit you hard at some point. Give yourself some time to settle in! Don't expect too much of yourself in the first weeks or months after a big change. I don't mean this in a selfish, hole-yourself-up-in-your-room-eating-Doritos kind of way, but more in a it's-normal-to-feel-a-bit-unstable-after-big-change kind of way.

I remember standing in the cafeteria at my college, perhaps the day after arriving, and having a staff member kindly inquire: "Are you feeling settled yet?" I realized she probably expected a "yes", but I was frank with her, "No, I'm not." Another person less-than-sensitively inquired of my dad, who was dropping me off and going back to South America, "Are you going to cry when you say goodbye tomorrow?" My father just looked at the inquirer and said, "Yes, I probably will." (Perhaps I get my directness from him). We both wept when we said our goodbyes, and it took a long time for me to settle in. That whole year, I never quite felt at home, but I knew that it was a good place for me to be, and that God was with me, and that made all the difference.

When I moved to Asia, the transition was enormous, and I remember bawling and not even knowing exactly why I was doing so, sometimes. For the first time in my life, I actually cried while on the phone with my parents, which I'm sure made them feel quite helpless, on the other end of the line in South America. I had a lot of difficult moments, but some of them slowly eased as I learned a new routine, became able to do errands by myself, and got to set up my own room and stock my own fridge. Of course, making friends and growing in relationships locally helped a lot, too.

Then I came to Europe, and it was a big transition again, because I was adjusting to married life (FYI, there is now a man who sleeps in my bed!) along with adjusting to a new country (with its ultra-fast store checkout lines, brusque-sounding language and few familiar faces). I wanted to "just be myself" and adjust quickly, but there were some days where I felt especially mopey. I was lonely, and when my husband came home, I literally just wanted him to wrap his arms around me for a while. The poor man was patient with my clingy moments.

I am thankful now that we kept our first month or so after arriving in Europe intentionally low key. There weren't many evening plans or high expectations. My husband went back to his regular job during the daytime, but I didn't start doing freelance work; I spent time writing thank-you notes, organizing cupboards and learning to cook in a new country. During my first month I had a terrible cold, lost my voice for about five days, and had a lot of emotional processing to do. My body was probably confused with the number of time zone shifts it had done in the last two months, and I had crazy dreams and trouble sleeping. For these reasons and others, I was glad we hadn't planned a busy first month. We had our first Christmas together during that first month, and kept it somewhat quiet as well.

My belief in taking transition slowly was reinforced when I spoke to a couple here who dove head-long into a significant commitment in their local fellowship early in their time here. Today they are still struggling with that commitment, but it is difficult to back out of what others have come to expect of them. Seven months into our time here, our schedule is fuller, I am doing quite a bit of freelance work, the requests for our help or time come more frequently, and our "people we'd like to have over" list keeps growing longer. I'm often thankful that I had about three months without as many commitments, so that we could figure out a few basics of marriage and life together, before pledging myself to much outside our home. If you're going through upheaval, and can afford to build in an intentional transition period, I highly recommend it.

What I've realized is that if the greyish transition clouds don't rise after a reasonable amount of time, perhaps your problem is deeper. But in my last move, I felt a definite shift after a few months. The moments of blubbering and confusion lessened. I could see personal growth. When I passed a simple but official language test, and this gave me courage to speak a bit more to strangers while out and about. When my husband was sick and I went to our Sunday group on my own, and I realized that it wasn't just my husband's fellowship anymore...it was mine, too! When a new place starts to have familiar places, faces, foods....then I realize that I'm settling in.

Speaking of familiar things, other than affording time to settle in, my other "settling in" tip is that finding things in my new place that remind me of my old place helps me feel settled. Of course, you can do this by bringing with pictures or mementos from your old home, and I always do bring some of those along. Or if you're transitioning into marriage, keeping a hobby that you really enjoyed in your single years might help you as you change life stages. But you can also find new things or activities in the new place or stage, that remind you of what you had before.

For example, in Asia I occasionally let myself splurge on little things or activities that gave me some culture or transition stress escape. I even made a list in the back of my daytimer of these things. One of the nicest activities for me (which I only did a couple of times) was going to one of the five star hotels in our city by myself, ordering the $10 Western breakfast buffet, and sitting with my laptop and notebook, writing, reading the Word, or praying. It was cathartic for me; I wrote this post from there. On my dusty walk home from work, sometimes I would buy a bag of gummi bears, salted California almonds or a UK-brand popsicle from the import shop, because they added a little stability to my very different world. I read an article by a lady who always missed her piano when living abroad, but as she noted, "Pianos don't fit well with a nomadic lifestyle." But after about ten years of that, she finally bought a piano, because it brought a lot of pleasure and familiarity to her to be able to play the piano to relax, even if it seemed like an expensive "extra". In Europe, I noticed that once I started finding freelance work again, it busied my mind and also gave me a sense of familiarity in a new world. It helped me to feel stable, employing my skills in an area where I had years of experience, while I was facing a steep learning curve in so many others (new marriage, new language, new house, new country, new friends).

At the moment, I am feeling as settled as I can be expected, I think! When we discuss the possibility of moving yet again, and the future is so unknown, I feel less settled. But for the time being, the transition anxiety has plateaued, and
(1) giving myself some time/cutting myself some slack during transition, and 
(2) finding some familiar foods, activities or items amidst all the newness 
helps me to adjust to change in a healthy way.

Of course, the best transition tool I know is to:
dwell in the secret place of the Most High,
abide under the shadow of the Almighty. 
say of the Lord, 'He is my refuge and my fortress;
My God, in Him I will trust.'
Surely He shall deliver you...
He shall cover you with His feathers,
And under His wings you shall take refuge;
His truth shall be your shield and buckler.
Because you have made the Lord...
your dwelling place, No evil shall befall you,
Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling;
For He shall give His angels charge over you,
To keep you in all your ways.
All these earthly transitions are temporary ones, and our lasting roots must be dug down deep in our omnipresent, omnipotent God. He is our dwelling place, no matter where we abide geographically. Sometimes listening to Psalm 91 on repeat is just what I need to focus my mind on my unchanging One, especially in times of change. There is no settledness on earth without the peace that things are settled between my God and myself.

But assuming that you are dwelling in Him, it can also help to speak in practical terms during times of upheaval. I hope this bit of earthly transition advice might help someone who has just gone through change to remember that when asked, "Are you feeling settled yet?" (or "Hast du dich gut eingelebt?") it's OK to be honest and answer, "No, I'm not!" or "No, I haven't." It's normal to need some time to settle in, and some familiar earthly comforts can help ease the jolting on this earthly journey toward our eternal Home. Gute Reise!

June 23, 2015

when I didn't need new friends

A few years ago I took a trip around North America to visit friends. After spending time with my transplanted friends in their far-flung locations, I wrote a post about how I realized that good friends can be hard to find after moving. This wasn't a startling revelation to me, but just a reminder of something I've been learning ever since I left home: many people are in need of new friends. Once I heard that one in three people are lonely. It has become my default to assume that people would appreciate a new friend, unless I am informed otherwise. My trip around North America only confirmed that.

Making new friends and parting with old ones has always been a part of my life. In my growing up years at our expat school in South America, due to the nature of the expat community and our parents' work, there were always comings and goings. There were new teachers coming, former teachers leaving, new classmates coming, and former classmates leaving. If they weren't coming or going, I was, so my friend circle was always changing. I suppose I had a lot of friends, but many shifted in and out throughout my childhood.

Other than the moves I made as a child, I have moved to a new continent three times, and I've been thinking about the friend-making process that always has to happen after each major move.

When I left South America for North America to attend college, I was only seventeen, and while it was sad, I had always expected that I would leave someday. The future was scary, but it also seemed interesting, and many of my friends were moving away too, so it was the thing to do.

It took some time to find "my people" in Canada, but eventually I did. God gave me good friends, who would cry with me or laugh with me, talk theology or tolerate my weird (I do not use that term lightly) humour, scrub my stove for me when I moved yet again, or invite my parents over when they came to visit. I moved a few times within Canada, but mostly the moves were within the same province, and some friendships spanned that eight-year stint entirely. I found good friends, and I didn't really want or need new ones.

So, when I left North America for Asia, the goodbyes were difficult, but the vision I had for living in Asia propelled me forward. While in Asia, I missed my far-away friends terribly, and annoyed everyone within five metres of me with constant showings of pictures of my baby niece. Even with all those forced niece viewings, I managed to make new friends in Asia. We came from vastly different cultures, but their warm hospitality to me, a bumbling foreigner who didn't know their customs, blessed me over and over.

The most treasured portions of my Asia journey were not what you might expect. I enjoyed riding an elephant, but the friends who got up at 5am to arrange the ride, or to ride along with me (especially the one who later admitted to being petrified of elephants) were the ones who made the ride special. The elaborate meals my friends treated me to at nice restaurants were delicious, but better were the honest conversations in my friends' bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms, when we talked about the things that matter most in life. These were the best moments in Asia, and though it was hard to leave Canada, I was so glad I made friends in Asia.

But last year, when I left Asia and moved to Europe, the friend-maker in me felt exhausted. I felt like a haphazard, unfaithful friend, abandoning my Asian friends who so kindly threw me pre-wedding parties (though they couldn't attend our wedding), and flying through North America just long enough to recruit friends help to pull off a wedding, not long enough to deeply reconnect to community there. Then I tumbled into Europe, into my husband's fellowship here, into a new language and culture, and into new relationships, again. I thought, I don't need new friends. I don't want new friends. I have all the friends I want, and all the friends I can handle. My heart wanted to put up a big "NO VACANCY" sign and burrow into long distance relationships. Logistically, the obvious choice was for me to move to my husband's country, not him to mine, but part of me asked: "Why do I have to make friends...again?"

But seven months later, here I am, making friends...again.

It's dangerous, this friend-making thing.
You love, and then you leave.
Wouldn't leaving be easier, if you didn't love?

One of our new friends here is the Syrian man I mentioned in a previous post. We just met him last month,  and have had him over a couple of times. He's already talking about moving to another country in the fall. I am not sure why we dare make friends with him: it is hard to love people who aren't settled, especially when you aren't settled either. Besides, he's not the happy-go-lucky, life-of-the-party type that so often attracts friends. He carries a heavy burden, as a man fleeing war-torn country would. His accented English and German blend all together; you have to have patience and a rudimentary knowledge of both languages to understand him.

We should know better than to make friends with him,
but we almost can't help it, I guess. Last week, he showed up at our table with fresh apricots. (Single Eastern male guests are better at bringing hostess gifts than single Western male guests, I have learned. I have even received a Pakistani scarf in exchange for supper one night!) He told us that in Syria they drink apricot juice at Ramadan, which was beginning the next day. He ate a meal and read a Story with us and four others.

A girl at the table asked him a question about his background, and his history started leaking out. We munched our apricots quietly, piling the pits in a dish. He spoke of dreams that gave him direction to come to Europe. His words pooled and sloshed between us, around the apricot pit bowls and Haribo gummies and supper's remains. When the deluge finished, we didn't have much to say, but perhaps the most important part was that we let the story flow, and didn't rush to wipe it up. Indeed, we agreed, God brought him here.

I remembered that day when I first told him that he should give his number to my husband, so that we could keep in touch. He grinned, raised his hands, and said four poignant words, "Finally, I have friends!" That serious, too-old-for-his-years face was brighter than usual, and I couldn't help but wonder if the tide that left him on a European shore did so that he might come to know everlasting Love. He described the bits and pieces of what he has learned of this Faith as, "...something deeper than I have seen before."

At this moment, I'm waiting for the doorbell to ring, expecting another friend, who needs someone to talk to about life right now. Actually, I don't know if I am her friend yet, because this is not warm-blooded, make-friends-in-the-elevator Asiayou must pay your dues as a Bekannter (acquaintance) before being brought into the Freund category. But I think the rules are not so stark in the family of God. Although she must know 100 people in this town better than she knows me, and although she has to struggle to find English words to express herself to me, she asked to come talk. This must mean that she needs a friend, at least today, though she might not toss up her arms with joy, like a Syrian would.

When I look at my move to Europe with the Father's eyes, I realize that maybe the Father moved me not because needed or wanted new friends, but because others did. In the last seven months in Europe we have opened our small apartment and smaller fridge to people of every assortment. We ordered a larger table. We salvaged some extra chairs. We put me to work doing something I can do without strong language skills: making food. My husband said one of the highlights of our first six months together here was his birthday party, when our home filled with faces from ten different nations, people whom we have allowed to become dangerously dear to us. And maybe the Father knew that I needed these new friends more than I thought I did.

Courage looks different in different lives. For our Syrian friend, his courage was demonstrated when he risked death to escape Syria for Europe. For my German friend, speaking a difficult truth to her friend who is walking away from the faith takes a brave heart, as does naming her sin to me and asking for prayer.

But perhaps for me, brave looks more ordinary. Brave is making green tea with ginger and honey for our Syrian friend, and inviting him back again. Brave is letting my heart mingle with my German friend's heart, as she shares her struggle across the table and we pray together. Brave is perfecting my bran muffin and chai latte recipes for another new-to-me person, or befriending internationals who are always going and coming. Brave is loving here, loving now, even when another international move could be in our near future, too (and dwelling on this makes me feel like I might tear into little pieces).

We have such a good friend in our Father. 
Even when I didn't want new friends, 
He knew that they need me, 
and that I need them.

"Do not forsake your friend
or a friend of your family, 
and do not go to your relative's house
when disaster strikes you
better a neighbor nearby 
than a relative far away.

"Now that you have purified yourselves 
by obeying the truth 
so that you have sincere love for each other, 
love one another deeply, from the heart.

"Love never gives up, never loses faith, 
is always hopeful, 
and endures through every circumstance." 

June 07, 2015

a name and a tower

It's 23:11 on the Paris metro. After a long day of seeing nearly every classic Paris postcard shot (and about 10,000 mini Tour d'Eiffel keychains) we're running our index fingers along colourful maps to figure our way back to our hotel.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a lanky black lady fit herself into the seat next to me. She's busy on her phone, playing a game where she feeds and washes a poorly-rendered cartoon potato. (You read that correctly.) I look at her more directly and realize that her arms are scarred, and her fingernails have worn, chipped maroon polish, like the hands of a lady who works hard.

A few seats away a man carrying a large toolbox perches on a small seat all by himself. He looks a bit dusty, like he could be a labourer at a construction site. I wonder about the time, Is he just coming home from work now, so late? He's in another world, talking to someone named Mahmod on his phone.

In the metro car ahead of us, loud music starts and teenagers are dancing and yelping. The commotion goes on for 5 or 10 minutes, and when the crowd of teenagers begins to clear, the instigator surfaces. She's a chunky girl travelling with a portable boom box on wheels, jovial as all get out. I wonder at her obvious courage and charisma, to start a dance party with strangers in a public place, and then pester metro travellers for coins.

The Paris metro feeds my curiosity about people and life, with its never-ending procession of people coming and going through its doors. I wonder about their histories, heartaches, hopes....

It's my second time in Paris, and this time I'm less concerned with getting the perfect picture of the Louvre or the city skyline. I have more time to sit on metro seats and park benches and take in the swarms of people. Under the Eiffel Tower it looks and sounds like a gathering from all nations. As does all of Paris: here the Jamaican and African street dancers, there the Lebanese kebab or crepe shops manned by tired-looking immigrants. Here the dolled-up Americans and Brazilians living the dream on the Champs d'Elyses, there an Eastern-looking lady with her hair under wraps, begging for coins. Local school children carry wreaths alongside veterans near the Arc de Triomphe, and I can't help but notice than only a minimal percentage of them "look French" (read: are Caucasian).

Big cities make promises, of fun, of glamour, of riches, of famemillions have gathered in Paris to make good on those promises. No matter how many years we are from Babel, the human heart moves in the same direction:
"Come, let us build ourselves a city,
and a tower whose top is in the heavens;
let us make a name for ourselves,
lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth."

I see a city pulsating with souls. Small images of God:
...locking padlocks on chain-link bridges to somehow immortalize their mortal love.
...longing to remember and be remembered, and taking pictures of themselves with world-renowned monuments like their lives depend on it.
...pushing their way to the front of the line, or the top of the tower.

I see a city pulsating with souls who choose either their own glory, name or tower, or His glory, His name, His tower. I don't have to look too far to see it; I have seen my own heart, desiring my own glory in the form a me-centered conversation, schedule, vacation...life.

The big city with the big tower can't keep all it has pledged, and there is more disappointment here than there is joy, as always happens when humans set out to seek their own glory.

A few weekends ago we were in a quieter place, hiking in the forest, and a friend of a friend came along. I had never met him before, but we covered a kilometre or two of the hike side-by-side and he told me bits of his story. He is 31, but feels old, because his story is already too long and too complicated.The hike tired him, but this was only because life tired him first: he knows firsthand about being scattered because of others who try to make a name for themselves.

He escaped Syria about two years ago, and couldn't tell his family or friends which day he was leaving. He miraculously made it through an extraordinary number of checkpoints, and has been bouncing around Europe for 18 months now, trying to learn a new language, and starting a new Master's degree. I say a new Master's degree because he already had one such degree and his own business in Damascus. He had no desire to start over in Europe. But neither did he wish to live in a city where death descended too often, where daily goodbyes had to be said like final farewells, because they might be. So he lives somewhat unwillingly here, with a dream of returning to a peaceful Syria.

My companion told me that he is wearied of moving, tired of changing places and stories and languages. He blamed the ongoing war in Syria on bad politics. I told him that deeper than the politics, the problem is the corrupt heart of every man, wanting to build his own tower or kingdom at the expense of others, to make a name for himself, to seek his own glory. I wish I had told him, too, how I abuse my power and dominion in smaller ways, how the sinners are not just the ones killing 130,000+ Syrians, but the two of us, too, wandering on that path under a peaceful canopy of trees.

Until we recognize our personal part in the problem that afflicts all mankind, we will find no solution.

In Europe it's not hard to travel, and while my sister-in-law was here, other than visiting Paris and going hiking, we also visited Strasbourg, France. We took in the gently-flowing canals, bridges with flower boxes, traditional houses and stone streets. I thought: for most of the world, to live in a place like this would be a dream. It is quiet, clean, organized, and gorgeous. It is probably almost as safe as you can get on earth.

But I was not satisfied, even with this city. I wondered to myself, "Why do I stand in the kingdoms  that man has built, unsatisfied? Why, the more sights I see and the more places I visit, do I long more for the strong tower of God? Why am I not satisfied with the hustle, history and heights of Paris, the organized feel of our home city, or the quiet rest of Strasbourg, as so many appear to be?"

Perhaps because in Paris, in a metro station with state-of-the-art scheduling and a brand new train, there is a woman who is wearing a shirt but no pants, spreading a bag of garbage open on the ledge, as a dog would do. On the river promenade in our city, there's a man yelling at his girlfriend, waving his arms violently. In the homes with the lovely flower boxes and traditional wooden trim in Strasbourg, I'm sure there are still divorces, rebellious children, and broken hearts. Indeed, what spoils the beautiful kingdoms of men is the very men who build them, the very men who seek to enjoy them for their own glory. I stand where many come to make a name for themselves, unsatisfied, because I long for these crowds to enter the city with His name, forever.

On a personal note, what can spoil the fineries of Europe for me is that my heart is still plagued with sin. The biggest threat to these beautiful places is in me, I cannot fully enjoy them because I am still in this self-glorifying body of deathI stand under the tower I have built for myself, unsatisfied, because I long to be brought into His strong tower, forever.

As C.S. Lewis so aptly put it, "...we were made for another world." Maranathaour Lord, come!

The name of the Lord is a strong tower; 
the righteous man runs into it and is safe.

To Calvary, Lord, in spirit now,
Our weary souls repair,
To dwell upon Thy dying love,
And taste its sweetness there.

Sweet resting place of every heart,
That feels the plague of sin,
Yet knows that deep mysterious joy,
The peace with God, within.

There, through Thine hour of deepest woe,
Thy suffering spirit passed;
Grace there its wondrous victory gained,
And love endured its last.

Dear suffering Lamb! Thy bleeding wounds,
With cords of love divine,
Have drawn our willing hearts to Thee,
And linked our life with Thine.

Thy sympathies and hopes are ours:
Dear Lord! we wait to see
Creation, all below, above,
Redeemed and blest by Thee.

Our longing eyes would fain behold
That bright and bless├Ęd brow,
Once wrung with bitterest anguish, wear
Its crown of glory now.

Why linger then? Come, Savior, come,
Responsive to our call;
Come, claim Thine ancient power, and reign 
The Heir and Lord of all.

May 19, 2015

six months

Nine years ago my still-teenage self was bumping down a country road in a friend's Jeep. She was telling me about a good friend's failing marriage. As we bounced along, she explained how it was difficult for her to fathom the devastation of divorce, because in her marriage, "every year gets better." I knew she had a joyful marriage, one that set a bar for me, reminding me that it was possible to be truly be best friends with the one you married. I knew her marriage was, as she always says, "rooted and built up in Him". But that "every year gets better" phrase never left me, because I did not understand. Every year, better? How so? 

I heard the same thing from a wise woman in more recent years, who told me of early conjugal struggles, and her mother's advice to wait it out because "it only gets better". She told me how it proved true in her marriage, that indeed, it was better now than before. I heard, but I still did not understand.

I have often seen how when my friends are dating, engaged or newly married, their lives receive a lot of attention, on social media or otherwise. But around the time of the birth of the second baby, the fanfare dies down and life settles into more ordinary things. Marriage days are punctuated by less-than-romantic trips to the laundromat because there is no clean underwear, or another late night cleaning up and taking out a stinky bag of garbage after guests leave. Then maybe babies, with their strict schedules, spit up and strong lungs. The glamorous Photoshopped wedding and honeymoon photos in exotic destinations eventually are replaced by grainy camera phone photos that show gained weight and receding hairlines. I wanted to believe my friends, but I still wondered, how does it get better as time goes by? The beginning is what looks so fun.

A picture from the day before our wedding.

Six months into my own marriage, I am starting to understand. Our wedding was memorable, and our honeymoon was fun, but can I admit something really boring? As far as our marriage goes, I like this week or last week better than I liked my honeymoon in the mountains. That's because, as I was told, each month, our marriage truly gets richer, deeper and better.

Marriage keeps getting better, because the longer we live this covenant, the more...

...days I've seen my husband's faithfulness in going to work, fighting the thorns and thistles of his particular job, providing for us. 
...times he has patiently wiped up my splashes around our small European kitchen sink and put on his rubber clogs to walk through the kitchen, rather than padding around in wet socks. 
...he has quietly brought a cup of water to my bedside, jumped out of bed to shut the window at night, or sorted (step one) and washed (step two) a pile of sticky supper dishes. 
...meals he's accepted with thanksgiving, not complaining about the meals he doesn't like (pasta with blue cheese sauce and toasted walnuts will never again be on our menu) and the more he's praised the meals he did like (thank God we both like Asian and TexMex).  
...he has graciously listened to my rambling thoughts, and contributed his insight (which is why he doesn't need to read this blog post, because he's heard the rough audio version!) 
...comfortable and safe we feel together, and the more good memories we've made together.
...prayers we've prayed together, the more Scripture we've read together, the more people we've served together. 

Marriage keeps getting better, because the longer we live together, the longer we've loved one another, the more we've forgiven one another, and the better we know and understand each other. Knowing that my husband has promised to live with me in this way until death do us part, gives me the security and serenity that allows our relationship to build on this history together, and grow better. We are learning better how to please each other, and how to build each other up.

But most importantly, the fact that our lives are not centred around devotion to "us", but around devotion to the One who made with us a better covenant, better promises...this allows us to always move toward better, the longer we are married. When we are concentrated on bettering our relationship with God, our marriage is automatically bettered as well.

My husband works in a profession that is technical and mostly male-dominated. When he announced his upcoming wedding at work, there was little conversation about it. If anything, he was told that marriage was not necessary in order to live with a woman. But in contrast, the few women in his office took up the typical feminine role of gushing about our snowy wedding photos and organizing a wedding gift when he returned to work after our honeymoon. One of the ladies asks him occasionally how I'm doing, if I'm settling in well to European life and learning the language, or if married life is OK. Recently she asked my husband if marriage is what he expected it to be.

He smiled when he told me how he responded.
"No, it's not," he told her. "It's better."

And that's why we didn't just count down to our wedding, now we now count up. This week we've been married for 181 days, or six months. I was correctly informed, and now I'm beginning to comprehend, how a God-centered marriage only gets better. 

This same principle applies to any godly, committed relationships in which we find ourselves. Have you noticed that the people who are commonly found criticizing their family, friends or local fellowships are generally the ones who are investing the least in those relationships? The ones who constantly complain about the church leadership or their mother's attitude are not usually the ones scrubbing toilets, forgiving offences, offering others the more prominent positions, quietly slipping off to start on the dishes, sacrificing their Saturday morning sleep-ins for another's good, lingering after the service to encourage a hurting person, or praying together.... They can't experience the joys of a covenant life that keeps getting better, building on shared history, growth and goals, because they aren't living the covenant. The wonder is this, that the God of the better covenant enables us to live our earthly covenants in a way that gets better the longer we live them.

But now Je'sus, our High Priest, has been given a ministry that is far superior to the old priesthood, for he is the one who mediates for us a far better covenant with God, based on better promises.
—the writer to the Hebrews 

Two are better than one, 
because they have a good reward for their labor.

May 06, 2015

sin the bud

[I started writing this post a few weeks ago - on a beautiful spring day].
Spring came overnight this year. When I crossed the city centre today, the trees that were yesterday brown skeletons were suddenly fluttering clouds of fresh green leaves. The grass on the corner near the grocery store caught my attentiontall and bushy, sporting a few dandelions, already needing a trim. A bird sung merrily from somewhere above me, and another outside our window. The city is bright, with pink blossoms festooning the trees and colourful flowers in all the planters.

Spring is beautiful here!

I tried to remember if it had been a few days since I had ventured out of our apartment, since some days I have no need to go out, and if that was why the coming of spring seemed so sudden to me. But no, I realized I had been outside yesterday...the wind was cooler, the trees more spindly, the birds subdued. Today really seemed like the first day of spring.

But in actuality, for weeks I'd been watching spring miraculously bring to life a cloudy, cold Europe. The sunshine has been lasting slightly longer each day, the bushes showing small blossoms, and knobby green buds had been coming out of hiding, on tree branches. What had actually been coming for a long time seemed to burst into my sight suddenly, and I almost forgot all the other signs of spring I had seen, compared to this.

Around the time of our wedding, we received various exhortations about marriage, some public and some private. We made mental notes (as much as we could, in the fog of engagement, wedding and early marriage). One of our advice-givers gave us a visual aid to remember his words, two blocks of wood glued together with our names scrawled on them with a Sharpie. The giver is a woodworker and the idea was clear, that God has glued us together, for good. My husband put the unsightly block on his bedside table as a reminder of the exhortation to cleave to one another.

That advice rings hollow now. Not the truth of cleaving, but the voice of the one who gave it to us. In recent months he admitted to adultery. He didn't use that difficult word in particular, but he told us about the child who came from the adulterous relationship, and she is now elementary-aged. Everyone was extremely disappointed by this sudden revelation and, judging by his crimson face, he was disappointed too, at least in being exposed. After all, in public he was doling out marriage and godly living advice and in private, doing the exact opposite.

At first it seemed like a sudden explosion of information, blindsiding his friends, family and acquaintances. But after a pause, a few people quietly admitted that they were both surprised and unsurprised by the news. No, most had not imagined the nature of his sin, the details of it. But it was like me, when I stopped to think about the signs of springthey suddenly remembered this incident and that conversation and realized that they shouldn't have been so surprised at this news. They had hints that something was wrong, even ten years ago.

The longer I live, the more stories I hear of believers who have become disqualified. It has happened to me several times lately, that I have read a book about a person or an organization that did its work in the name of God, but a quick Google search revealed a later ungodly inconsistency. There are teachers whose lectures were shared at our youth groups who now openly condone the redefinition of marriage. There's the popular preacher who lied to get his books to the top of bestseller lists. We've probably all experienced these kinds of disappointments with people we know personally or people we trusted from a distance.

Two concerns enter my mind when I hear these things:
[1] fear that I would be the one to fall away, and disappoint God and others, and
[2] fear that I or my loved ones would be hurt or deceived by such a one.
(And if I my fear of [2] is greater than my fear of [1], then I am greatly in danger of [1], if you know what I mean.)

But both fears need to be replaced by the fear of God, which is the only real protection against sin. We can build systems of rules and protective devices for ourselves, but ultimately "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom." Through wisdom, we can learn to recognize what kind of tree we are, by the leaves, buds, blossoms or finally, the fruits we produce. "By their fruit you shall know them," and by wisdom we learn to recognize what's growing in our orchard.

Fear of God grows through regular exposure to the Scriptures... "I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you." "I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path." "The fear of the Lord is to hate evil." Seeing the public failings of others, and knowing my own more private failings, has made me more desperate for the Word. I'm seeking to press into it more faithfully, to value it more highly, to hide it in my heart, to post it on our walls, to bookend my days with it...that I might not sin against Him.  

We all have sins we take less seriously than others, perhaps gluttony, gossip, complaining, pride, lack of submission to authority.... But today's "small" sins are tomorrow's "big" sins. Rosaria Butterfield insightfully teaches that the root of sin behind hom0sexuality is pride. Rosaria's message is that if we harbour pride, who are we to say that one day we will not harbour hom0sexuality? Wisdom lets us recognize and uproot sin in its seed form, long before it is full grown.

Not only does a focus on the Word keep us from sin in our own lives, but it guides us toward wise people and away from foolish ones. It is not the will of God that we be hurt or deceived by teachers whose lives are inconsistent with their words, and if we are growing in maturity and walking in holiness, I believe He gives us discernment and often gives us warnings far before the "sudden explosions". I can hardly think of a case in my own life where a friend or a leader's life or doctrine did not raise some small- or medium-sized concerns in my mind, before a big revelation came. It is through His Word's wisdom that we become mature, and as Hebrews says, able to "discern both good and evil." We don't have to be surprised by the fruit if we learn to recognize the seed, the bud, the blossom....

My husband's cleared his bedside stand of that superglued wooden block. He may have disposed of it, and I don't mind; it was ugly in the first place, and now it holds an ugly memory. As I select pictures for the albums from our wedding season, part of me wants keep the album devoid of the memory of his mismatched life and doctrine by removing his picture. But on second thought, I want to keep him in the album, as a solemn reminder to "watch [our] life and our doctrine closely". Spring doesn't come overnight. Neither does adultery. Let this spring remind us not to be surprised or overcome by sin, but to nip sin in the bud, through the fear of the Lord.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Paul to the Corinthians 

April 28, 2015

a different spirit altogether

After a few sunny spring days, Europe is back to its grey rain today. I'm eating a soft, salty brezel and warming my fingers around a mug of tea. Our flat is chilly and I'm trying to set my mind to my work. I'm distracted, however, when I look out at the neighbours' rooftop porch, where they spend most every sunny evening. For the first time, I notice a small statue tucked amongst their deck decor: a sleek, serene Buddha. The cool drizzle falls on Buddha, and I think, Europe is grey in more ways than one.

My thoughts turn to an incident a few weeks ago, when I was buying discounted tea lights at a gift store. A shopper (not my neighbour) approached the cashier with a huge, heavy Buddha in her arms. She heaved him onto the countertop, where the cashier proceed to wrap this master of enlightenment in enough padding that he not suffer damage on the way to his new home. As I watched the lady clinging to this expensive black stone god, I couldn't help but notice the irony of her situation. Here she stood, in a land freed by Luther's Reformation, using her hard-won freedom to choose...the bondage of Buddha. Here she stood, with her back to one of the biggest chruches in our city, embracing an Eastern elixir for her Western want.

And I thoughtbut isn't that the West today? Freed by the Scriptures, only to go back to the ideas that enslaved us prior? (The very terms we use to talk about Western history allude to this misunderstanding of history—the "Dark Ages" had more Light than secular historians would have us think, and "The Enlightenment" was not as bright as it sounds.) Back turned to the Truth the Word had to offer, the West is flaunting its freedom to choose falsehood.

After my first visit to the East, I saw buzzwords used in the West, like guru and yoga, differently. After living in the East, now I see a pooja invitation for what it really is. I see the heart of the West enamored with ideas pouring from the East. Like Eve, seeking something appealing to her body, her eyes, her mind, trusting her feelings more than His Word. Like Eve, swallowing the snake god's teachings undiscerningly. Like Eve, wed to husbands who stand idly by with no wisdom or insight to correct their gullible wives when they embrace Buddha and bring him onto their porches and into their homes. 
South Asian posters of various gods
Of course, the irony is, that in the East there is also an infatuation with the West. It can be as mild as an interest in burgers or big brands, or as dangerous as a fascination with the Western gods of order, peace, health and prosperity. The West we know today was built on principles like honest pay for honest work, the equality of all men and women in God's eyes, and other Truths  which have led to the achievements of the "developed world". The West draws many Easterners as well, though perhaps for different reasons.

The West is full of the East, now,  and the East full of the West. Times are changing and our paradigms are merging. Our worldviews are inevitably meshing, as our children are raised with cultural pluralism, in its best and worst forms. At its best, this multiculturalism teaches our children firsthand that all were truly created from one blood and really have only one need. But at its worst, our children are taught lies and a dangerous tolerance, that is, the tolerance of false ideas in the name of unity.

I recently discovered Caryl Matrisciana, who was raised as a Catholic Britisher in India, and as a young adult became almost accidentally entwined in Eastern mysticism through hippie music and culture in England in the sixties. After coming into a living relationship with Chr!st in her twenties, she made it her life's work to warn the chruch about New Age ideas, about how dangerous Eastern philosophies were creeping into the West under new names, something she sees so clearly because of her exposure both to East and West.

Caryl speaks of "New Age" teaching, but have you noticed that the very term "New Age" is rarely heard anymore? The pluralism and mysticism of Eastern thinking has become so much a part of Western thinking that most don't even recognize it for what it is. No longer are those lies only embraced by people "with their back to the chruch", but also by those inside the chruch. For example, recently I came across a book that at first appearance seemed Chr!stian, with Scripture quotes throughout. But upon closer inspection, I noted that the author was teaching women to find strength in their inner goddesses and be their own light...concepts completely foreign to the Word. This author's syncretism was obvious, but in many cases, it is harder to spot. Today, Caryl's work is to warn false thinking is now in the chruch: in their books, taught at their workshops, and infiltrating their pulpits. Over and over, she emphasizes that followers of the Way, the Truth, the Life must know their Book (so unique from any writings of other so-called sages) and their God lest they be deceived by that old serpent, who is impartial, deceiving East and West both. 

A depiction of a H!ndu deity
I have often heard that post-moderns think of God as an impersonal force, but I had an "aha moment" while listening to an interview with Caryl, when she said that the B!blical God is relational, while the typical Eastern view of god is more mystical. God is relational and has created a world with human relationships, such as father-child, friend-friend, or employer-employee, that help us to understand how to relate to Him. When a person learns that the true God is to him like a father, a friend or a master, he instantly has a general understanding of the relationship he is to have with God. 

When people begin to use mystical, non-relational practices in their worship, this should warn us about the extra-B!blical source of their ideas. (Caryl defines mysticism as "not communicating... getting into a euphoric feeling" and disconnecting from the world around you). For example, often empty, repetitive chanting is used in religious worship, but to which father, friend or boss would you ever speak in repetitive chants? Did Adam and Eve simply repeat His name and burn candles around Him when He came to visit in the garden, or did they have real conversations, a real exchange of important information, a real personal relationship with Him? Running our theology (which should be firmly grounded particularly in the doctrinal passages of God's Word) through the historical passages offers us a system of checks and balances, to see if our theological constructs are still fitting the big story of the Scripture. The doctrinal passages teach us that God wants a relationship with mankind, and the narratives show us what it looks like when God relates to humans.

Keeping close to His Word keeps us from turning Him into a mystical God, an impersonal force that encourages us to live by our own power and according to our fluctuating emotions. In Proverbs 1:23 God says,
"I will pour out my spirit to you;
I will make my words known to you."
Charles Clough explains that the poetic Hebrew parallelism in this verse indicates that the pouring out of God's spirit is not a mystical experience, because it involves the transfer of words; it is communication. The true God is mysterious, in that we cannot fully comprehend Him, but He is not mystical in an Eastern sense. The chruch is full of people speaking of experiences and emotion today, but the true outpouring out of His Spirit will never take place in a way that does not align with the Word He has already given us. His Word is the only reliable measuring stick by which to gauge our experiences and impulses. We must know the Word, personally, lest in our desire for experiences, we welcome a different spirit altogether. 

South Asian snake charmer
Today, the West looks to the East, seeking enlightenment through mystical experiences which are as old as the Snake himself. The East looks to the West, seeking a better life but finds, too often, the same soul bondage repackaged.  

As East and West cast their eyes toward each other, may they see the One who stands on Israeli soil,
at the crossroads of civilization,
at the place where East and West meet.

The One who suffered the snake bite, but rose victorious over it.
The One who ascended and promised to return one day and reign physically, visibly, personally from Jer'usalem, forever crushing the serpent's head. He is the Truth-telling Spirit. He is the Living Word. May there be many who catch a glimpse of Him, and "come from the east and the west...and sit down in the kingdom of God."

"But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Chr!st. For if one comes and preaches another J'esus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different g0spel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully...."
 —Paul to the Corinthians
"When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, 'We want to hear you again on this subject.'"
 —Luke, recording Paul's experience in Athens 

"Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it."
 —J'esus, as recorded by Matthew

...“Lord, are there few who are saved?” And He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from,’ then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out. They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God. And indeed there are last who will be first, and there are first who will be last.... O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; and assuredly, I say to you, you shall not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ”
 —J'esus, as recorded by Luke

April 18, 2015

a supper invitation

I started a new job recently, as food services manager. I take care of menu planning, food purchasing and meal preparation. That is, for me and my husband, and sometimes for guests. As a single, I cooked, but more sporadically, or in bulk (I was the college kid eating homemade chicken and rice casserole four days in a row). Before I was married, if I preferred to spend the evening writing rather than cooking, I could do that. But my work is now to please my husband, and regular meals please him more than regular blog posts. (Imagine that!) So, I cook regularly.

I've enjoyed the past few months of finding recipe blogs, testing menus on my husband or friends, and when we find something we like, trying to repeat the performance again a few weeks later. I still wouldn't list cooking as my favourite activity (may God bless all of you who do...actually, I love supper invitations...) but I do enjoy in preparing colourful, healthy meals, and I think it is important to find joy in things we must do every day.

As the focus of my life has shifted, I'm understanding a bit better why my wife and mom friends talk about food and recipes so often. It's the stuff of their lives, especially if they're feeding big families. I still don't aim to be a woman who talks about kitchen-related topics every time she sees her friends, but they're entering my vocabulary more. As are food trend words. I'm finding more recipes that call for "free-range eggs" instead of any old eggs, or "organic rice flour" instead of run-of-the-mill flour. Salt is sea and pepper is fresh-cracked. I'm running into the various eating trends more often, and since we live in a place where organic produce is readily available, I'm finding myself lingering undecidedly between the regular mushrooms and the (two or three times as expensive) organic mushrooms at the store. Being a menu planner means making lots of little decisions which cumulatively have a big impact.

As we lay the foundations of food in our home,  I'm thinking about what healthy and balanced eating looks like, and running ideas past my husband. But more than subscribing to a certain plan or diet, my main concern as food manager in our home, is that my theology of food and eating be properly oriented. Food is a common distraction, and a common idol of the human heart. We eat too much or too little, care about our health too much or too little. Our relationship to our food is often an indicator of our relationship to God and His Word.  

When I graduated from high school twelve years ago, virtually the only "food preferences" I knew of were related to health problems (such as allergies, diabetes) and vegetarianism. I recall working as a camp counsellor and bringing the EpiPen to the supper table in case my camper came into contact with sesame seeds, or perhaps having to encourage a picky child to eat what was put in front of her. But that world of eating seemed kind of simple, now that I look back on it. I can only imagine children coming to camp now with a list of food preferences longer than their arm, and having a cabin full of kids with wildly different diets and trying to please them all. Or, perhaps kids don't go to camp anymore, for fear that they may eat (and perhaps enjoy?) hot dogs, marshmallows, pop or white bread.

It seems North Americans are losing their balance in the area of food. I can see how easily this happens, due to genuine health concerns (I rarely touch hot dogs, marshmallows, or pop, either), but in all things we need balance. I haven't heard much about food trends or extreme diets in Europe yet, which makes me think it that the trends that come to mind are more of a North American phenomenon. (That, and having more credit cards than you have children and pets. North America isn't famous for its moderation.)

A good friend read my mind in February and posted some of her concerns about believers choosing their diets in more and more extreme ways. She referenced 1 Timothy 4:1-6 and then listed the three points below.
"The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Chr!st J'esus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed." (1 Timothy 4:1-6)
My friend wrote,
  1. "If food is pulling me away from fellowship with other believers because what's served at the potluck won't be _______ ...
  2. "If I'm teaching our children to be disrespectful or ungrateful because our family doesn't eat _______....
  3. "If I am consumed by fear over what will happen if we ingest ________....
"...then maybe I need to reconsider my heart's worship. Be thankful. And even be willing to 'point these things out to the brothers and sisters, [so that I] will be a good minister of Chr!st Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed'. [I Timothy 4:6]"
Believers often follow eating trends believing that they stem from a godly desire to steward their bodies well. But when food is more important than fellowship or gratefulness, or when it fills one with earthly fears, is not godly. Even if the food does great things for one's gut, weight, skin or overall health.

I saw how easily food fear could be more important to me than the fear of God when I lived in Asia. The local newspaper proclaimed that the chicken sold in our city was so full of antibiotics, that people who commonly eat chicken could become immune to antibiotics a doctor might later prescribe to them. I heard that the chiles and mangoes were rejected for export to developed nations due to the chemicals being used on them, and the watermelons were being injected with sweeteners by the producers. The very choices I thought were good for me (avoiding the yummy fried snacks aisle, heading for the vegetable department) were not much good for me, either. Sometimes my heart grumbled at this, but I had to decide: would matters of food keep me from fellowship, gratefulness, and trust in God? 

When we adhere to very particular diets (for non-medical reasons), it limits our ability to cross cultural divides and take spiritual food to the spiritually hungriest places. The very places in the world that are darkest and neediest are often the places where there will be no organic produce and no health food stores selling our favourite supplements. Even in Western contexts, food preferences or concerns may stop us from showing hospitality to and receiving hospitality from neighbours of differing cultures and faith. Will our menu stop us from m!ssions?

Acts 10 tells the account of how Peter was headed out to obey his Master's "go make disciples" command, and still following his Old Testament eating practices. He had a vision, where God showed him "all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air" and told him to rise, kill and eat. Peter refused, "Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean!" and God told him, "What God has cleansed you must not call common." In the Old Testament, God was calling His Israelite people out of pagan nations, and had them live according to particular food laws. But it is significant that just as the good news was breaking the Jewish barriers and heading out in to the Gentile world like never before, God dropped the food restrictions. The chruch had a new freedom to eat all things, and this would greatly enhance their ability to go make disciples.

To allow our food preferences to slow us from going out with spiritual food is not Sciptural. Furthermore, the forbidding of certain foods a sign of false religion (see I Timothy 4 again). While most of the world is captive to food laws, to their false (or in the case of the Jews, incomplete) religions, we are free.
  • Jews follow the distinct "kosher" diet laid out in the Torah.
  • Muslims' meat must be slaughtered in a particular way, and pork is not allowed.
  • Many Hindus are lactovegetarians (no meat or eggs), and a few avoid all varieties of garlic and onions.
  • Jains are not only lactovegetarians, but they often don't eat root vegetables (including carrots, potatoes), garlic or onions either. During fasting periods other foods are also restricted. 
  • Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons represent a few of the sects within the broad title of Christianity that have self-imposed dietary restrictions.
...and I'm sure the list goes on. That's them, but we are free to be "all things to all men"! We are free to eat pork with our German friends, or abstain from it with our Iranian friends. We are free to serve garlic toast to our American friends and then abstain from garlic to accommodate our Jain friends. We don't need special infrastructure (such as a halal butcher) to be able to settle in a new location. He lifted dietary restrictions in part so that we could go into all the world with greater ease.

Other than not eating food offered to idols, or general principles of stewarding our bodies well, we have only one dietary restriction given to the chruch in the epistles. It is not about the food or the body (which perish), but about people and their souls (whom He wills not to perish). Romans 14-15 teaches that we are to eat in a way that promotes love and unity, not in a way that causes others to stumble. "Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.

Godliness will produce a God- and others-centred balance in a world that is full of extremes. It helps to have godly, balanced people with eternal mindsets as our role models. Paul wrote to the Philippians:
"...keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Chr!st. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there...[who] will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body."
Our God-given food freedom, so unique among the religions of the world, opens doors to nourish others on the truth of faith. If Peter could eat ham with Gentile friends, we too can eat things with others that we would not choose to eat on our own. What God has cleansed, we must not call common. The way we make our everyday food decisions can have a big impact—for the Kingdom!

We are not menu advisers for the marriage supper of the Lamb(I have a feeling we'll be eating whatever is served)—our task is as messengers. We are to invite more guests, and we will eat, together, forever. "Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb."

"My food is to do the will of him
who sent me and to finish his work."

"For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Chr!st in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
—Paul to the Romans

"'Don't you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn't go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.' (In saying this, J'esus declared all foods clean.) He went on: What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person's heart, that evil thoughts come...and defile a person.'"

"For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come."
Paul, to Timothy  

"The lips of the righteous nourish many, but fools die for lack of sense."

"Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence."
Paul to the Colossians

March 30, 2015

you look fat today

Not long ago, Eastern friends invited us for an informal supper on a weeknight. I had a small floral plate of theirs in my cupboard, which they'd forgotten at our place. Asia taught me not to return plates empty, so before our visit, I made a simple chocolate dessert to share. My husband tasted it at lunchtime and confirmed its deliciousness. I confidently packed both the sweets and the plate to take to our hosts.

That evening, we folded our limbs to fit into their small dining area, knees hitting table legs, and partook of oily eggplant and meat kebabs, served with rice and flat bread. The host had done the cooking because his wife was under the weather, and we showered him with praise for the tasty entree.

When it was time for dessert, my chocolate squares were placed on the table with the hostesses' other sweets. The man of the house sunk a thick finger into the corner of a square, and tasted my creation. Then, indicating his wife's berry cake, he declared to my husband, "Maybe once you have been married as long as I have, your wife will know how to make nice desserts like my wife makes, not this stuff." 

Inside, I grumbled, and was ready to leave.
Why do we hang out with people who insult me,
or waste a dessert that we like on people who don't like it?

A few days later, I was walking home in the evening with a fellow North American. We crossed a main bridge into the city centre and she asked, "What's for supper?" I should have known that it wasn't a good sign when my description of the food I had prepared (modifying it slightly to suit her allergies) was met with dead silence. As mealtime approached, she informed us that she had had a late lunch, and that she is the world's pickiest eater. 

For the next hour and a half, she sought to prove that true. She skillfully repositioned the food on her plate at least fifty times, and nibbled a grain of rice here or a piece of turkey there...but injested virtually nothing except bread, butter and coffee. Even the orange slices served as a side dish were nearly untouched. She didn't like the food, that was obvious. But she seemed pleased to spend the evening telling us about her background, interests, and accomplishments. Apparently learning to eat what she is served is not among those accomplishments.

Inside, I grumbled, and was ready for her to leave.
Why do we host self-absorbed picky eaters,
and why does she have to stay so late? 

It's one thing to write peppy posts about practicing hospitality, and it is quite another to live out hospitality with a forgiving and loving spirit. Our local Body is studying 1 Peter, and this week I came across Peter's admonition: "Be hospitable to one another without grumbling". The text was so obvious; I had to repent of grumbling about hosting or being hosted by people who aren't particularly easy to have around.  

Hospitality seems a strange topic for Peter to broach in an epistle that this focused on believers suffering with hope. Doesn't he have bigger fish to fry, like how to handle persecution or death threats? But in daily life, suffering comes most often in these little forms: bad manners, sarcastic remarks, and small insults that leave us with a bad taste in our mouths. Small irritations easily drive division between us and others, when we respond in the flesh. But when we respond in the Spirit, these mini-suffering moments train us to respond well to the big suffering moments. Through them we have the opportunity to advance spiritually in ways that we would never had developed had everyone been extraordinarily complimentary, accommodating and generous to us at all times.  

When we face circumstances tempt us to grumble, Peter shows us that we have the opportunity to look at the big picture: 
  • in the past, He patiently suffered for you, not returning insult for insult;
  • in the future, He's coming for you, and will settle you in your eternal home;
  • right now, "the end of all things is at hand"... (4:7).
The little things we grumble about, that keep us from a hospitable spirit, are temporary. Peter refers to our whole lives as "the time of your stay here", because this pilgrimage on earth shouldn't be wasted "revil[ing] in return" but instead, turning the other cheek.

The title of this post is a small insult, and direct quotation, from a friend in Asia. One day not long after we had met, she came by for a visit. After a short greeting, she announced, "You look fat today!" I was insulted, and I didn't know how to respond. But clearly her comment wasn't inappropriate in her culture, because she was a kind-hearted woman and didn't mean to hurt me. I had to overlook the slight, knowing she meant well, and perhaps throw out that horizontally-striped T-shirt. But I have never managed to throw her words from my memory!

These little slights are the stuff of life with one another, and especially of cross-cultural life with one another. Peter's first letter is full of lots of little gems about how to act toward "one another", likely because God knew that in suffering situations we often take out our frustrations on one another. The exact word pair "one another" is mentioned seven times in my English translation of 1 Peter:
  • "love one another fervently with a pure heart,"
  • "be of one mind, having compassion for one another;
    love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous...."
  • "above all things have fervent love for one another,
    for 'love will cover a multitude of sins.'"
  • "Be hospitable to one another without grumbling."
  • "minister [your gifts] to one another"
  • "be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility"
  • "Greet one another with...love."
If you're sensitive and selfish like I am, your response when slighted is often to subtly distance yourself from the people who insult you, not to be hospitable to them. Or to grumble or gossip about them, not to have compassion and fervent love for them. We need His admonition, "Be hospitable to one another without grumbling."

Lately I'm learning that when I look at a perceived insult with an attitude of humility, letting love tenderize the hurt, usually there is something practical to learn from the insult. Such as:
  • Central Asians aren't used to peanut butter and chocolate no-bake squares, and might not like them. To serve them better, try something using flavours and ingredients they are more accustomed to.
  • Don't try exotic wild rice salads on Americans you don't know very well; standard Sloppy Joes with a white bread option might be better.
  • Watch how much you eat, and keep reasonably fit.
Furthermore, usually an insult only smarts because we recognize a kernel of truth in the words, and we are too proud to admit it. If someone insults us in a way that is completely untrue, we get over it sooner, because we realize that it was just a product of their fantasy. But these situations made me more aware of true weaknesses of mine, which is never a pleasant experience. Now that I think about it,
  • I had thrown a simple dessert together, just to have something to take along. I could plan the time to make nicer desserts or desserts better suited to the recipients. I have a tendency to choose the lazy way out, especially if I think no one else will notice the difference.
  • I had made the mistake of trying a new dish on a new person, and it honestly didn't taste super good, even to us. I can complain about her picky eating, or I can grow in being a selfless hostess by feeding people things that are less unusual. Again, sometimes I'm lazy or selfish, just not wanting to make another trip to the grocery store, or wanting to make something I think is good, no matter if my guests will enjoy it.
  • I was "looking fat" because I had been over-eating (that's called gluttony, folks), and needed to lose some weight and exercise more regularly. It just hurt to have someone acknowledge it so openly, but I knew it was true.
I don't say these things to berate or be unreasonable with myself, but to say that God is mercifully using these remarks to remind me of sin He had already shown me, in my heart.

What could have been an insult that brings division, when it is...
covered in love ("love always hopes" that they didn't mean to hurt me),
received with humility (recognizing that I too am sinful), and
followed with no grumbling (recognizing that this slight is valuable to me, as a teachable moment)
....is a catalyst for growth in my life, because I'm able to extract the truth from careless words and even be thankful for the person who exposed that truth to me.

In the end, those unfiltered thoughts and brutally honest assessments are swifter teachers than ten friends who flatter me for years, and don't tell me where I could improve. In the end, hurts can often help. But even when I can't see any good or truth in hard words, "the end of all things is at hand", the command is still there: let's be hospitable to one another without grumbling.